“How do we follow the prophets?” asked Nora, the executive director of Interfaith, a progressive, multiracial, faith-based community organizing coalition that I began studying in the wake of the Great Recession and amid deepening political disagreement about how to move forward as a country. “How can we be prophetic voices,” she continued, “in a world that is different, fearful, and blaming?” She was speaking to a room full of lay leaders who had gathered in a church auditorium on a Sunday afternoon for Interfaith’s quarterly leadership meeting, the theme of which was “Prophetic Voice.”
“It is, I promise, worse than you think.” An article that begins this way assumes a lot. It assumes I think. It assumes I think about it. But it is surprising how a person can avoid thinking about a lot of things when they think for a living. Or maybe that is not surprising?
In his landmark essay, Nomos and Narrative, the late legal scholar Robert Cover wrote about the jurispathic function of courts—that is, its ability to quash other commitments and forms of interpretation when they are incompatible with national norms. Religious freedom cases brought before courts often highlight this ability. In such cases, courts assert one law, often the state’s, to the rejection of all others.
Isaiah Berlin famously described the twentieth century as an antagonism of Communism and Nazism, “totalitarian tyrannies of both right and left.” They were intrinsically connected with each other not only through the prevalence of propaganda over truth, collectivism over individuality, and idea over human life but because both were “religions” in a certain sense. This sort of religion was called “political.” There were hopes after the collapse of the Soviet Union that this sort of religion would never re-emerge, at least in the civilized world. It seems, however, these hopes were premature. Political religion is making its come back in Russia, and it is even lurking in the United States.
The matter of the love-hate relationship between psychoanalysis and public life has an unexpected link to the complexities of secularism in the United States. Officially, psychoanalysis has been dismissed as a mode of inquiry into the issues of public life and especially into the states of mind of its actors. This is the result of the famous Goldwater Rule, introduced into the ethics code of the American Psychiatric Association following the 1964 presidential election, when analysts had the temerity to “diagnose” Barry Goldwater without the benefit of having him on their couches.
It would not have taken long for French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to realize that President Donald Trump has a paranoid vision of the world. This does not mean that President Trump is insane, but rather that he has never left the mental space we all inhabited as toddlers and that we have never entirely forgotten.
President Obama’s constant calls for Americans to “disagree without being disagreeable” now feel like an ironic epitaph to a bygone era of somewhat better feelings. With the inauguration of our new Incivilitarian-in-Chief, a man who has apparently elevated ad hominem to new heights of electoral success, surely the once perennial bloom is, at long last, off the “civilitarian” rose?
As Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell, and Olivier Roy remark, there is an important distinction to be drawn between the churches and the populist movements: “populists speak of identity and churches speak of faith.” Democracies will always bring forth populist movements when a broad cross-section of the democratic order feels, correctly or incorrectly, that their concerns are not being recognized by the establishment. For good or ill, these movements provide a corrective to the ruling order and call for reforms.
The paradox I wish to explore, with reference to developments in Northern and Western Europe, is that religion also informs assertively secular understandings and discourses of nationhood—and not simply as their evident target, but as their putative foundation.
Recent opinion polls suggest that more white evangelicals will vote for Donald Trump in 2016 than voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. Why? Why would white evangelicals pull the lever for a man who is the walking antithesis of most everything they claim to stand for—family values, piety, humility, and forgiveness?